Friday, January 29, 2016

Silent But Deadly

Drawing Barred Owl feather

Owls are the living example of the old adage “seen but not heard.”  Did you ever wonder whether the myth of their silent flight is true or just an exaggeration? Last fall we took our dog for a walk on a moonlit night upstate, and we saw a strange sight.  Up in a tree in front of our house sat an owl with a large glittering golden red object in its mouth.  Next to that owl sat another saying “hoo” (really saying it) “who cooks for you?”  Then the second owl spread its wings and flew off—silently, so silently that the air seemed to stop moving.  With a closer look, I could see that the first owl had a huge koi in its mouth, probably taken from a nearby homeowner’s koi pond.  The owl looked at me with those deep coal black eyes and sat there.  These were barred owls, and we have a pair of them upstate.  They probably mostly eat mice and small rodents as they are known to do, but occasionally they may come upon a surprise feast of a frog or even a koi.  They love fish and aquatic animals, love to eat them that is. 

But getting back to the question of silent flight, I had questions.  These are big birds with big wings—how could they not make a sound when they fly?  Well, I am taking a Birds of Prey drawing course at the NY Botanical Gardens, and I am drawing a barred owl for my project.  I took a closer look (online—I know we are not legally allowed to have owl feathers) and got my answer.  Owl feathers have a unique construction with a couple of special features that dampen sound built right into them.  

Diagram from How Stuff Works

Owl feathers have downy hairs all over their surface that break the air stream into smaller air streams that dissipate the sound, so there is no build up of a single audible air pressure wave.  Not only that, but the primary flight feathers are serrated like a comb. This design breaks down turbulence into smaller currents or micro-turbulences. The edge muffles thesound of air flowing over the wing and shifts the angle at which air flows. This allows air to pass through which eliminates sound. Some researchers think that the feathers could also shift the sound energy of the wing to a higher frequency that their prey and human watchers cannot hear.  As you can imagine, the military and various other makers of aircraft are studying this and trying to duplicate it to reduce aircraft noise.  Feathers in general are wonderful to draw, but owl feathers are especially interesting because they have an almost magical quality to them.  No wonder Athena and Lakshmi both revered the silent flying owls and kept them safe from harm.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Pesky Neighbor That's Here to Stay

Quick sketch of Eastern Gray Squirrel
Central Park called January 21st Squirrel Appreciation Day, and that probably doesn't sit that well with everyone. I know that the Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, is considered a pest by many humans and a good source of dinner by hawks, owls, and falcons, but they are also one of our neighbors, perhaps pesky but a neighbor nonetheless.  And for some city children, the squirrel is the only “wild” mammal they see outside of the zoo.  I know there’s an occasional skunk, raccoon, chipmunk, or coyote, but there are lots and lots of squirrels. We can learn a lot about squirrels from just watching them:  they are fast scamperers—dogs love to chase them up trees; they are hoarders--storing nuts, berries, fruits and other seeds in caches all around their home base; they build leafy nests, or “dreys,” in trees—females produce a litter once or twice a year; and the sexes are not dimorphic--males and females look pretty much the same.  The gray squirrel is native to North America, to eastern and Midwestern United States and to eastern provinces of Canada.  Eastern Gray squirrels have found their way to Europe where they are unwelcome visitors. It is thought that they have displaced some of the more favored red squirrels, and so they are widely hunted.  In fact, one thing the European Union might agree on is building an Eastern gray- squirrel-proof wall and then getting the squirrels to pay for it.  But I think I’ve ventured into other territory, so back to the squirrels.

Eastern gray squirrels were a source of food for Native Americans and colonists.  Hunters still eat their meat and say it is flavorful, like the dark meat of chicken.  Their furry tails were used to decorate and make hats and other winter wear warmer.  And my husband once told me that they were a perfect size to make into a fine slipper.  I/we haven’t tried that or any of the above.  But I do think they are great animals to watch and draw. They have fluffy silvery upturned tails, dark slightly slanted eyes, whitish tummies, pink inside their ears, and pinkish noses--noses that have an amazing sense of smell.  I’ve enjoyed walking with neighborhood children as they “ooh” and “aah” about the squirrel running up the tree or staring down from its nest.  I’ve also seen dogs, even I’m sorry to say my own little Lana, chase squirrels.  That’s not such a good idea.  They get nervous, chirp, and could be dangerous.  That reminds me of one thing that we all need to know: Squirrels bite.  They’re cute, but let me say it again, they bite, especially when they are cornered or frightened.  So the best advice is to watch and admire them for their spunk and city skills.  And if it’s not too cold, it’s fun to take a pencil and pad and draw them—their general shapes and expressions.  This little quick sketch is an example of that kind of drawing.   

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Tree that Won a War

I was walking along Riverside Drive about to enter the park at 88th street when I saw the remains of one of my favorite trees: the Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia.  I stopped to take the photo at the left and to look more closely at the exquisite bark of this amazing tree.  Black locust trees are beautiful year round: in spring they produce wisteria-like flowers that have a wonderful fragrance, appealing to bees who then make delicious honey; in the summer they have graceful shade-producing feather-pinnate compound leaves; in the fall, the leaves turn golden; in the winter, the furrowed bark turns the tree into a sculpture.  The trees fix nitrogen in the ground, and as historian Wesley Greene writes, “a cord of locust has the same Btu potential as a ton of anthracite coal—the highest fuel value of any American tree.” The timber from the Black Locust is extremely resistant to rotting; it is the strongest wood in North America, and the nails made from it are credited with helping the Americans to win the war of 1812.  British ships were built with oak nails and American ships with locust nails.  When the ships were hit by cannonballs, the British ships came apart, but the American ships held together.  As you might expect, the British began to import locust nails making for a lucrative business, and well the rest is history.
     The black locust was described as early as 1610 in William Strachey’s book, The Historie of Travell into Virgina Britinia.  It is posited that Native Americans exported the trees from the mountains to the coastal plains prior to the arrival of the colonists. Native Americans used locust wood to form their bows; soon after they arrived on North American shores, colonial builders learned from the Native Americans and started erecting buildings supported with locust wood--some of those original posts still exist.  Then in a turn around, Americans exported Black Locust to Europe.  Once the trees arrived in Europe, they quickly became a favorite.  Luckily for those that love them, they are hardy. easy to grow, and now have the widest worldwide distribution of any North American tree.  So while it is with sadness that I witnessed the demise of one tree on Riverside Drive, I am reminded of what Leslie Day has said about these trees on walks we conducted in Central Park.  The Parks Department uses the remains of Black Locust trees to form benches, bridge handrails, and arbors.  The wood lasts forever; it is just continues in a different form. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Pick Up Sticks

Crossed sticks January 2016
First days this winter when it has dropped below freezing. I feel the cold and hear it as the wind blows from the river. I want to stay inside with a cup of tea and a good book.  But I remind myself that no matter how cold it is, there is still a lot to find in nature. Winter opens up spaces to see. The evergreens are in their glory, but they are not alone. The deciduous trees speak too but in a quieter voice. The leaves are mostly gone: you can see the structure of trees, the way branches grow, birds, nests, fruits, seeds, and if you get close--buds.

A few weeks ago, I started collecting sticks and branches that were strewn across the snowless ground.  And I discovered a small world in each one.  The crevices, lichen, broken parts, and holes have tales to tell of leaves, insects, birds, and squirrels--of what it feels like to be part of a tree.  They are great to draw although at first they look, well mostly brown, dull, and past their prime.  Then you pick up your pencil and begin to look for angles, bumps, y-shapes, peeling bark and you start to draw.  What had seemed to be a simple form reveals itself, and once again, I am awed by the complexity of nature and of forms themselves.  I think of David Morrison, an amazing artist, whose recent gallery show was called “Sticks” and included his exquisite drawings of, you know, sticks.  He inspired me to go back to playing pick up sticks, a game I enjoyed as a kid, but with a new and different goal. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Winter Bloomers

Drawing of Winter Blooming Jasmine
Here we are on the first day of 2016, a chilly Friday after a surprising December of days in the 60s and even 70s.  Plants are confused.  Even the Winter Blooming Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), the deciduous perennial vine in the Oleaceae family, is ahead of itself.  I usually look forward to seeing its sunny yellow flowers in February knowing that they foretell of warm and sunny days. In Chinese, the plant name translates to the  “welcoming spring flower,” which it usually is.  It usually flowers on the first warm day in January and then stops blooming when a freezing frosty day comes along.  It flowers again in February and March, a welcoming of spring.  But it can bloom all winter long responding to warm temperatures.   We’ll see what happens this winter, but so far it is in bloom.

The flowers of the plant might remind you of  another Oleaceae, Forsythia.  Both plants originally come from China and their flowers emerge directly from naked leafless stems.  But forsythia is a later bloomer, usually in early March or April.

Winter Blooming Jasmine was introduced to England in 1844 by the Scottish plant collector and botanist, Robert Fortune (1812-1880), also known as the man who stole tea plants from China and brought them to India to help create the East India Company’s tea business, but that is another story engagingly told by Sarah Rose in her book on the subject.  

As the New Year begins, I am thinking of a better side of the plant collecting of the aptly named Fortune: Winter Blooming Jasmine, a plant that he bought in a Shanghai nursery and sent back to England’s Royal Horticulture Society where it became a big hit and ultimately found its way to America.

And then there is its name.  I have a personal affinity for “Jasmine,” a plant with many varieties and all with great beauty, and some--unlike the winter jasmine--with a perfumy scent as well. The genus name is originally from the Persian Yasameen, "gift from God" or Yasmin. I had a student this semester named Yasmin, a brilliant student, who wears her name well.  The second part of the name nudiflorum means naked flower and refers to the fact that the flowers bloom on stems bare of leaves.  The Winter Blooming Jasmine is a winter gift and promise of spring—the sun, the flowers, the butterflies, the light.